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Film: Rashomon

"I don't understand it. I don't understand it at all."
The Woodcutter (first line of the film)

A samurai went out for a walk with his wife, encountered a bandit and was murdered — and that's all anyone knows for sure about the situation. Each eyewitness to the crime — the bandit, the wife, and the dead samurai (through a medium) — give vastly different accounts of what happened, and each eyewitness portrays themselves as the most (un)sympathetic figure in their story. What's more baffling is that each witness also claims to be directly responsible for the man's death, albeit with reasonable motives.

Which story, if any, is the closest to the truth? That's the question that a woodcutter and a priest mull over as they explain the situation to a third person (and, by extension, the audience) while they wait out the rain under the ruined Rashōmon gate. As the stories are explained, a fourth story emerges from the woodcutter, who eventually admits that he actually saw what happened — but his story contradicts the participant's accounts just as much as their stories contradicted each other's. By the film's end, neither the characters nor the audience are any closer to uncovering the truth, but the concluding events do provide some reassurance that even though humans lie and steal, they're still capable of goodness.

Rashomon is a 1950 Japanese film produced at Daiei, directed by Akira Kurosawa, and actually based not on Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's Rashōmon (from which it takes only the "waiting out the rain under the gate" part) but on a later short story by same author, In a Grove. The film itself inspired two play adaptations and the naming of a psychological effect. This is the film that introduced Kurosawa and Japanese cinema to the West; it received an Honorary Oscar at the 1952 Academy Awards. note 

The Trope Namer of "Rashomon"-Style, a plot which mimics the narrative style of this film.


Tropes:

  • Absence of Evidence: One of the final reveals is that the woodcutter, who at that point is the only person the viewer would be inclined to believe entirely, stole a valuable dagger mentioned by all the other witnesses even though he'd specifically denied seeing it. This is what causes the commoner to suss it all out and mock him.
  • Alternate Character Interpretation: invoked In-universe: the characters' personalities vary greatly between the different testimonies.
  • Art Shift: Tone changes with the testimonies. In the bandit's story, he is dirty and the scene resembles a botched crime film; contrast this style with the woman's story and the woodcutter's second testimony.
  • Babies Ever After: The movie's sole high-note amongst the lies, cruelty, and confusion rampant in it is the discovery of an orphaned baby and the woodcutter's pledge to raise it like another one of his children.
  • Believing Their Own Lies: Possibly everyone who told a story but lied. The commoner's Hannibal Lecture makes the woodcutter realize he did this as the commoner figured out the woodcutter did not mention the valuable dagger spoke of by all the other stories and thus reasoned he stole it, giving the woodcutter a Heroic BSOD as he found he can't even understand and trust his own soul.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The true events of what transpired to kill the samurai are still in doubt, the case's ruling is never stated and it is unknown if the woodcutter ever bothered with coming out with what he supposedly saw to the court, but the woodcutter altruistically takes the abandoned baby to raise as another one of his children, which restores the faith of him and the priest in humanity.
  • Circular Drive: The famous long dolly shot at the beginning was achieved by having the actor walk in a figure eight pattern that crossed the dolly tracks twice. It looks like the camera is following him through the woods but he is actually walking around it.
  • Death Glare: The samurai's wife's reason for slaying her husband after her rape. It frightened her so much, the only way to stop it was taking the dagger and killing him.
  • Dream Sue: Tajōmaru's story has him seduce a man's wife with but a kiss, releases the samurai to let him die honorably, and proceeds to win a duel against him while controlling the fight completely. He also insists he did not fall off the horse he stole which resulted in his arrest, but got a stomachache from what must have been some bad water he drank.
  • Driven to Suicide: What the samurai (or medium "channeling" him) claims to have done in his story, after witnessing the unfaithfulness of his wife.
  • Every Japanese Sword Is a Katana: Averted. Tajōmaru wields a tsurugi, and the Samurai wields a tachi.
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: The names of the Priest, the Woodcutter and the Commoner are not revealed.
  • Evil Laugh: Tajōmaru, the bandit, all throughout his testimony. In The Woodcutter's actual testimony, from the woman - either she's laughing at the bandit's failure to kill her husband, or is laughing bitterly about the bandit's feelings not being true and the fact that her "honorable samurai" is a wimp. Take your pick.
  • Flashback: All the testimonies.
  • Fourth Wall Psych: Played with in the scenes from the inquest, where the camera's point of view is that of the officials interrogating the characters. We neither see nor hear the officials themselves, but the characters speak directly into the camera and respond as though they are being questioned.
  • Fridge Logic: This is actually a main point of the film — every testimony contains inconsistencies, like the woodcutter walking around in a forest obviously not intent on cutting wood when he said otherwise, a trained samurai overpowered by a filthy, obviously untrained bandit, the bandit not acting like the thug he claimed to be in a testimony, the samurai acting like a scared civilian in a fight for his life, and so on. invoked
  • Hannibal Lecture: The commoner decries woodcutter's assertions that stealing the kimono with the child is evil by pointing out that he has reasoned the woodcutter stole the valuable pearl inlaid knife that was mentioned by the other testimonies but unaccounted for in the woodcutter's story.
  • Heroic BSOD: The woodcutter and the priest are not exactly the heroes of the story (although, from a certain viewpoint, they are the closest this movie gets to actual heroes), but they both seem to be suffering this at the beginning of the film. After relating his version of events, the Woodcutter is blasted by the commoner about the pearl inlaid knife, originally wielded by the Samurai's Wife; this results in the Woodcutter experiencing BSOD and leads to the admission "I'm the one who should be ashamed. I don't understand my own soul."
  • Hime Cut: The Samurai's Wife.
  • Honor Before Reason: The Bandit, the Samurai and the Wife all try to justify themselves by somehow involving honor. Completely absent in the Woodcutter's tale, which makes them all look like fools.
  • Laughing Mad: During the Woodcutter's real testimony, the samurai's wife breaks out in hysterics, at one point. One possible interpretation of the wife's laughter within the woodcutter's telling, as both Tajōmaru and her husband outright rejected her, or that they're both too cowardly to win her affection.
  • Minimalist Cast: There are only eight actors in this film. Nine, if you count the horse.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Set up by the wife in the woodcutter's story, who says the decision is not hers in response to Tajōmaru's begging for her to marry him and frees her husband from his bonds, but does not outright turn Tajōmaru down. They both flat-out disagree with starting such a thing over her, but they later do fight when she mocks them both as not being men by the samurai's unwillingness to avenge his wife's virtue and Tajōmaru's refusal to fight for his desires.
  • No Name Given: Everyone in the film other than Tajōmaru.
  • Parental Abandonment: After the woodcutter tells his story, an orphaned baby is heard crying and found in the gate.
  • Period Piece: Shogunate-era Japan.
  • "Rashomon"-Style (aka Rashomon Plot): The Trope Namer... although most of those that followed don't bring the dead guy to the party.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: it is surprisingly difficult to capture rain on film (it's one reason most Hollywood rain sequences are shot in the dark) so Kurosawa's team had to use enormous volumes of water (delivered using fire hoses) and eventually resorted to dying the water black—tricks he later reused while filming Ikiru.
    • During the bandit Tajōmaru's testimony, he boasts that he crossed blades over twenty times with the samurai in the course of their duel. This is all movie fighting; in a real sword fight they would cross far fewer times. A very realistic example of such is performed by Kyūzō early on in Seven Samurai - and shown in the Woodcutter's admission - the two men spend more time trying to desperately dodge and read each other's motions, and when they swing, they hit empty air.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: The samurai's wife to both Tajōmaru and her husband in the Woodcutter's real testimony. Who saw that coming?
  • Restored My Faith in Humanity: The priest by the woodcutter offering to take and care for the orphaned baby like another child of his own.
  • Rule of Three: There are three characters for the sign above the Rashōmon gate saying Rashōmon, there are three settings in the movie (the forest, the courtyard and Rashōmon gate), three people delivered a testimony in the courtyard, there are three people at Rashōmon gate discussing the stories of the samurai's death.
  • Sand in My Eyes: The samurai's story has him say he heard someone crying after his wife had disappeared from his midst, when the visuals clearly show him crying.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Tajōmaru's telling has him tell of the wife trying to fight him off with a dagger and says he was attracted by this fierce spirit before he rapes her. While the wife's telling has her not fit this much bolder character Tajōmaru stated of her, none of the other stories explicitly contradict that she tried to fight him off as they take place after the rape.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: The former side is represented by the priest and the woodcutter, who believe they've lost all faith in human nature from the conflicting stories they've heard indicated some very bold lies somewhere, and the commoner represents the latter by laughing off the supposed badness and selfishness of every human at the end before suiting words to deeds by stealing the clothes around a baby abandoned in the ruins of the shrine. The Woodcutter's willingness to take the child in and raise it despite his own poverty — "I already have six children, what's one more?" — restores both men's faith.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Tajōmaru's story largely has him say how totally cool he is... assuming he was lying. The other stories, and The Woodcutter's true story paint him as extraordinary pathetic, and scared.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: The woman tries to paint herself as this.
  • Title Drop: The name of the gate where the movie takes place is Rashōmon and written in Chinese characters on a sign at the top of it as a shot shows. Rashōmon gate is explicitly stated by the characters later in the story, but averts this trope as the dialogue gives it little fanfare.
  • Token Good Teammate: The priest is the sole character in the film who had no evidence of any wrongdoing shown.
  • Unbuilt Trope: The film actually deconstructs many aspects of the oft-imitated plot structure that it lends its name to. Instead of using its famous "Three contradictory flashbacks" format as a simple plot gimmick (like most of its imitators do), it's a deeply philosophical character study that uses the format as a vehicle for discussing human beings' inherent inability to tell the truth, examining the moral implications of this idea in full. At one point, one character even concludes that almost all of mankind's evils arise from their attempts to avoid confronting the truth by lying to themselves. By the end, the story has ceased to be about a murder trial at all, and become the story of said character's struggle to regain his faith in humanity. Notably, the traditional "Fourth true flashback" (which has grown into a common conclusion for Rashomon Plots) is also strongly hinted to be another lie. We're initially led to believe that the Woodcutter (a neutral witness to the murder) is the only one telling the truth...until it turns out that he may have stolen the murder weapon.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The whole point of the film.
  • Unusual Eyebrows: The wife seems to lack eyebrows (logically shaved off) and instead has makeup on representing them. This was a staple of Japanese standards of beauty at the time - higher eyebrows were seen as desirable.
  • Wham Line: The commoner at the end of the story.
    Commoner: So what did you do with the dagger? The valuable one with the pearl inlay that Tajōmaru was talking about?
  • What Does She See in Him?: The bandit claims that the man's wife submitted to him after he forced himself on her, and begged for him to take her away from her husband. Not surprisingly, the wife's own account completely avoids this.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: An interesting twist. All three of the stories told by the three individuals involved in some way involve the woman's ornate dagger, but none of them explain why the woodcutter didn't find it when he found the body. When the woodcutter explains what he saw of the affair, the dagger doesn't appear at all. The man who he's been telling the stories to figures out what is going on: the woodcutter stole the dagger after everyone else had died or left; it's the knife he uses to defend the baby at the end.
    • The ending also leaves the official court ruling in limbo, if there even was one.
  • Wimp Fight: In the Woodcutter's version of the duel between the Samurai and the bandit, they run around swinging desperately at each other with their weapons. It's often taken as one of the hints that his testimony isn't exactly truthful - a trained Samurai wouldn't have done such a thing - but this was how Kurosawa commonly depicted fights. This may be also be explained by the men's mutual unwillingness to fight until the wife goaded them into it.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Mentioned by the cynical commoner as a common ploy by women, used by the wife and/or the samurai's telling of themselves within their stories if they lied, accused of toward the samurai's wife by the samurai and Tajōmaru within the woodcutter's story, leading them to both reject her.
  • World Half Full: Despite the bleakness of the setting, the despair of the priest and the woodcutter, and the nihilist ramblings of the commoner, the woodcutter's ability to do good, despite having done evil, restores the two men's hope.
  • You Monster!: Tajōmaru portrays himself as a unrepentant murderer and rapist, laughing evilly throughout his testimony. The other testimonies subvert this trope and paint him as a scared, pathetic, only-somewhat-thuggish bum.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Tajōmaru claims the samurai's wife submitted to him very easily, the samurai's story has it state his wife told Tajōmaru to kill him before she ran off with him, and within the woodcutter's story, this is the likely interpretation of what the samurai reasoned when he considered his wife was insufficiently ashamed of being raped.


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alternative title(s): Rashomon
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